The neighbors breed rabbits. Some they give to their daughters’ friends, some they eat. I asked one of the neighbor’s daughters if that’s difficult, to name some of the litter and eat the others for dinner, and she laughed. No, she said. No, of course not.
My only understanding of rabbits is from The Velveteen Rabbit. Timna, the oldest of my charges—all forearms and shins, thin as a whisper—was given her rabbits two years ago. She caresses their ears, lets them romp through the house when her father isn’t home. I ask her if she’d eat rabbit. No, she says. Not one of my bunnies.
Another rabbit? I ask. Like if you went to the neighbor’s house for dinner? No, Timna says. Well, maybe.
When I told my regulars at the bar that I was leaving, that I was going to become an au pair in Austria, they all made the same references to The Sound of Music. How lovely! they said. Watch out for the Nazis. Will you sing to them?
I assumed I’d learn new depths of my character as I shaped the lives of the girls, that I’d be beloved. I thought it would be an adventure.
Mornings, I wake the girls and make breakfast. I dress them and walk Timma and her sisters to school. Then, it’s laundry and ironing while I watch The Wire. Make lunch. I feed the scraps to the rabbits. Wait for one to give me a mystical look. Pick up the girls from school. Play with them or take them on hikes. We go swimming.
I wear their mother’s hiking boots, which are half a size too big. The leather is scratched, and shines a dull cordovan.
I didn’t know that the Austrian school day ends at lunch time. The youngest girls, who are in kindergarten, often return from school having learned new songs. Elementary school teachers are required to play an instrument, [End Page 52] usually the guitar, so they can lead their students as they sing. While this is idyllic, I wonder what happens if someone can’t carry a tune.
They don’t teach elementary school then, says Christina, the girls’ mother, as if I’ve asked a very stupid question.
I suppose I have.
Some nights, Christina and I sit and drink glasses of wine. She tells me about her girlhood in Styria (the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger, still called there the “Styrian Oak”). She asks me why Americans are so prudish about sex. And she tells me that a woman isn’t a real woman until she’s given birth. I’m not sure the best way to assert either my womanhood or my maternal abilities without pointing to my raising of her children.
Months into my tenure, she informs me that she didn’t actually need an au pair, but that I was hired because I’m a native English speaker. She wants her daughters to be fluent. And my vocabulary isn’t even that expansive. The girls learn as much from me as from tv.
I hadn’t realized I was meant to lecture on topics, like physics or art history, that might generate more esoteric words to learn. For a day or so, I attempt to refer to blue as cerulean, rack my brain for other synonyms to supplement my daily vocabulary. I can’t think of new ways to beg the girls to eat their lunch, to stop fighting, to listen to me.
When I hike down the mountain road into town, strangers stop their cars to ask if I’d like a ride. Sometimes, they recognize me: You’re the American! they say, pulling to the side of the road.
All know me when I open my mouth. What do you think of Vorarlberg? they ask. This is the real Austria. You’re lucky to be here. Sometimes they try to speak in Hoch Deutsch for me, but mostly they end up back in dialekt, and I attempt to follow. When I watch television back at the house, if someone from Vorarlberg is interviewed, they...